What I have Learned Living in Nanjing as of 11/3/2013
I have been living in Nanjing for almost two and a half months. A wonderful city that features the best of Chinese history and modernization efforts, Nanjing is the perfect learning environment for an intermediate mandarin speaker. Before coming to study here there was one thing that worried me. Before I continue, I would like to take a moment to introduce my background. I am a fifth generation Japanese-American originally from Hawaii. As someone whose appearance very strongly resembles an ethnic Han Chinese person, I often receive puzzled looks and quizzical stares when stumbling through sentences with native Chinese speakers. I can confidently make the claim that every time I go out in Nanjing, whether it’s coffee or a cab ride, the following interaction takes place: After fumbling through a sentence in Chinese and/or a “ting bu dong” the person I am talking to will question my nationality. American, but this answer is never good enough since Americans can ONLY be white Caucasians (kidding), which ultimately leads to a question that I used to dread more than anything. If you aren’t Chinese, what is your ethnicity? I used to lie. Thai, Filipino, anything but the truth, since the truth would only turn this quick conversation sour.
For those unfamiliar with modern Chinese history, Nanjing is the site of the Nanjing Massacre, a devastating invasion that has stained relations between Japan and China for the past seventy five years. On December 13th, 1937 the Imperial Japanese Army marched from Shanghai into the former Chinese capital of Nanjing. Over the course of 6 weeks, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were mercilessly raped and killed by Japanese forces. The Japanese occupied Nanjing for the next 8 years, where many more Chinese perished. Those who survived lived in fear of their ruthless oppressors. The brutality of the war crimes committed by the Japanese almost 75 years ago paired with the many important members of the contemporary government denying such war crimes a major contributing factor to existing tension between the two countries.
Visiting the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, it was very clear that the Nanjing Massacre is still fresh on many people’s minds. Survivors who witnessed the horrors of the massacre are still alive today to give their accounts of “Japanese devils” destroying their homes and families. Walking around the Memorial Hall seeing the horrifying pictures, graphic descriptions, and videos of survivors giving their descriptions, I was entranced peculiar sensation. It began with shame. Shame that I shared the same bloodline as the villains who destroyed so much of China. I can’t quite answer why I felt this way, especially since I am a fifth generation American whose family was in Hawaii long before the 1930’s and WWII. But if anybody in the museum knew my dirty little secret, I felt that I would be the target of loathing and disgust.
It took me a few days, maybe even a week to clear my head and make sense of the feelings I experienced in the Memorial Hall. It finally struck me that there is absolutely no reason that I should feel inclined to hide my ethnicity or feel ashamed of whom I am. I have no responsibility in what happened 75 years ago and I do not deny the events that happened in Nanjing. If the natives of Nanjing found me charming as a Thai-American girl, why wouldn’t they be able to find me charming as a Japanese-American? While I believe the former is true, I understand this can be difficult for some. No matter where you go in the world, you will encounter people who refuse to open their minds to something contrary to what they believe. So be it, I am here to talk to anyone that is willing to listen. If people have formed a predisposed opinion that anyone with Japanese blood is terrible and untrustworthy, I want to be here to change their minds. Just as the people of China educate me through their language and culture, I want to be here to educate them in acceptance of individual character over racial stereotypes. Living in Nanjing, I learned to be confident of who I am as an individual and accept the consequences of p: a Japanese-American with a very strong affinity towards Chinese culture.